The critical self: A protective factor in disguise 

Many of us have a 'critical self', a part of us that makes judgements about who we are, and what we should be doing, and narrates the daily experiences we have throughout the day. Some people are unaware that their critical self takes over and shapes the way they behave towards themselves or the world around them. In contrast, others really suffer from it and sink into self-loathing, anxiety, and depression and perhaps engage in self-destructive behaviours because they don't think they're 'worthy' of anything else or because they're punishing themselves for not being 'good enough'. Others may not take the opportunity to try something new or something they'd like to experience because they don't think it's 'for them'.

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Being self-critical is a concept that's not new to anyone; we sometimes hear it in social conversations: "Don't be so hard on yourself", "don't judge yourself so harshly", etc. While these statements are intended to be supportive, anyone who is critical of themselves and suffers from it (whether they're aware of it or not) will understand when I say that you can't turn it off. If you could, you'd have done so already.

So let's discuss the critical self, which is often acknowledged but rarely discussed in depth in conversation, not because people don't care but perhaps because they're missing some insights. I hope to provide these insights in this article that will help to better understand the critical self but also how to begin to relate to it in a new way.


How do you identify your critical self? 

In the section above, I mentioned that some people are not aware of their own critical self. So let me clarify what I mean by this and who exactly I'm referring to. It can be one of two things – some people have an inner critic that doesn't take control of their whole life because they have coping tools and a broader belief system that counteracts the critical self. They are able to distinguish between who they are and the critical self; the critical self does not define their truth or identity, it is merely a part of them that arises on some occasions and that can be navigated temporarily.

For others, the critical self has become the norm for so long that they may even find it hard to accept the concept of the critical self as their whole identity, and so it can be very scary to start to change the way you understand yourself and step back to see just how much the critical self has taken over.

It can be painful, I admit, because you may feel like you've wasted time or not lived your life truthfully. Others, on the other hand, will be relieved to realise that there is a possibility of making a change that could have a positive impact on many aspects of their lives and that they will no longer need to carry such strong emotions of guilt, shame, or self-loathing, for example, throughout their daily lives. Everything you feel is valid.

How do you identify the critical self when it surfaces?

Let's deconstruct that. Let's start with this: When you read 'critical self', what comes to mind? Is it the mountain of "I should have done" that comes to mind? Is it the many introductory phrases such as "I knew...." or "I always...." that are often used in a critical context? Is there a particular tone? A face? Does it remind you of someone? A parental figure, an authoritarian figure, someone who intimidated you? Is the critical voice patronising or making fun of you? When you think about your critical self, do you suddenly feel tightness in your stomach or chest?

Some people are more aware of the type of thoughts they have, others of their physiological sensations, and still others of their emotions. Start with what comes to mind and explore the other areas slowly and progressively: what comes to mind when you criticise yourself? If you're having trouble with this, try to imagine a time when someone called you out for being too critical of yourself: what was it they were referring to? Could you ask them? Take a moment to ask yourself: how do you know that you are criticising yourself at that precise moment? Is this something you need to examine more closely to develop greater self-awareness when the critical voice is heard? You need to recognise it before you can change the way you respond to it.

Common emotions associated with the critical self

This part of the article aims to make you feel seen from a distance and recognise the various complex emotions that can be associated with the critical self. Although I emphasize a few emotions in the following sentences, this doesn't mean that others can't exist and are of less importance. The aim is to show the different ways in which individuals can experience their critical self and to remind you that people can experience similar things in different ways.

Some of you may feel anxious in a social or professional context, because your critical self makes you believe that you're not good enough or that you're "the type who always makes mistakes", for example. Some of you isolate yourselves because you don't believe that "someone like you" (if you often refer to yourself in this way, take the time to ask yourself what it really means) could ever be in a relationship, while others are stuck in circles where they constantly encounter the same kind of partner and experience the same kinds of problems and relationship dynamics – perhaps because they don't think they can or deserve to have more, nor do they know what other relationship dynamics might look or feel like, so they don't even know how to venture into something different, even if they wanted to.

Some of you may be experiencing deep feelings of loss, sadness, and helplessness because everything the critical self says about you is your whole truth and you're exhausted from feeling "less than". Some may even experience feelings of injustice because others "seem to belong" and you feel you don’t.

If any of this resonates with you, I hope I can bring you some comfort by showing you that you're not alone. I'd also like to remind you that no one ever asked for this critical self, that it comes from a specific place and that, while you're not responsible for the experiences you've had or the environment you found yourself in early in life that shaped this part of you, you do have the power to change things now. It doesn't have to last forever, and sometimes the first step is to seek help and invest in therapy. You are worthy of help. 


The purpose of the critical self: A protective factor 

Now let's address a very important point: if you assumed that going to therapy would be associated with the goal of never feeling or experiencing the critical self or any of the emotions you dislike, think again. While I understand the desire to never experience painful emotions, and while I understand why the image of the critical self is portrayed as the ultimate villain ruining your life, this perspective is one of the factors that keeps you stuck and gives that critical self even more power.

Let's unpack why, but before we do, know that there are many perspectives and approaches to understanding the critical self. This article simply presents my vision of the issue and gives an overview of how I approach problems related to the critical self with my clients. 

Let's consider for a moment that the critical self has one purpose and one purpose only: to protect you from harm. If your critical self tells you that you won't be good enough to blend in with the people at that party you've been invited to, for example, you might stay at home instead of going and be potentially vulnerable, or even get rejected by someone. In this scenario, the critical self prevents you from going to this party so as not to have to face potential vulnerability.  

One way forward, then, might be to ask yourself: what is this critical self trying to protect you from? I encourage you to ask this question whenever the situation calls for it. Engage differently with the critical self so that it ceases to be your truth and instead begin to see it as an inadequate means of trying to protect you from harm. You'd already be putting the brakes on the "criticise yourself for being critical once more" cycle that I know some of you are experiencing as well. It can even help you avoid emotional overload by focusing on what it's trying to protect you from – you're trying to understand your emotional world rather than being consumed by it. It's a shift in itself. Importantly, you'll begin to access the underlying issues that need to be addressed. What is your critical self truly about? 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, Greater London, WC2H 0DT
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Written by Dr Pauline Chiarizia
London, Greater London, WC2H 0DT

I work with clients suffering from anxiety, low self-esteem, burnout, trauma, relationship difficulties (breakup/divorce/dating/family) and/or with clients going through major life transitions or managing a new chronic illness. I often help my clients cope with painful experiences, recover from burn...

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